Pattern Break: Problems, Patterns and Change

Got Patterns?

Nearly everyone has a way of thinking, feeling or a behaviour they want to change.

Why do we get stuck repeating things that cause us problems?
Why do we do things we don’t want to do?
How come our efforts to change don’t work?

The answer? Patterns.

As humans, we go through life learning how to respond. As we develop we learn ways of thinking, feeling and responding that then become patterns. We respond in a certain way, respond that way again, and practice until the response is automatic. Once we’ve practiced enough, that response will run automatically. It becomes a habitual way of responding, and the more we use it, the more automatic it becomes. It is like a skill we master. Practice and repetition make it automatic and effortless. When you get on a bike, the bike patterns run. You don’t even have to think about it. So is the case with all our patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.

When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? I bet it’s a pattern – same thing every day!
When you walk up to a door, you reach for the handle and turn. Automatic.
When you’re driving and the light turns red, you slow down and stop. It’s a pattern.
When you get dressed, you get dressed in a very specific order. Pattern!

What’s a pattern?

A pattern is any way of thinking, feeling, behaving or relating that is automatic, unconscious, predictable and habitual. We have patterned ways of responding to almost everything. How do you respond to challenges and problems? How do you respond to failure and mistakes? How do you respond when meeting new people? To bad news? Good news? What about when you succeed, impress yourself, receive a compliment or a commendation. Each of us has typical ways of responding to things, people, situations and circumstances. These are patterns.

As creatures of habit (pattern!), we rarely even think about our habitual and automatic ways of thinking, feeling and responding. We get swept away by them, let them run us and don’t even see them. That’s why patterns are unconscious.

What are your patterns?

Most of our behaviour is patterned.

We rarely have to think about what to do in a given situation. Usually, we’ve been in similar situations before and so we simply function on automatic. Somewhere along the way, we all learned how to respond to all kinds of things, people, situations and stimuli.

When you are attracted to someone, how do you respond? Probably in a patterned way. You’re either excited or afraid, confident or frozen. It’s a pattern.

When you see an authority figure, how do you respond? Probably the same way every time.

When someone criticizes you, how do you respond? You’ll have a habitual way of responding to criticism that gets triggered anytime you’re criticized.

If in all these situations we have to think about how to respond, life would be tedious. We’d always be sitting around telling people to hold on a moment while we consider what would be the appropriate response. Hold on while I think about how to greet you. Do I need to shake your hand? Am I supposed to smile here? No, people aren’t like that.

As humans, we acquire patterns to help us navigate the world. If a response gets us a result, our mind installs it as a program to free us up to focus on other things.

When you think, feel or respond in a certain way, in essence you are practicing. Your nervous system is getting used to that response and you become skilled a producing that response. As we engage in and practice any way of thinking, feeling or responding, it becomes easier and more automatic. Soon it drops out of awareness like any skill we’ve mastered. You don’t have to think about what to do when you drive because you’ve mastered the skill. It happens effortlessly and automatically.

Patterns are often unconscious.

We have habitual ways perceiving, interpreting, evaluating, feeling and responding that were practiced until they dropped out of awareness. We then run a pattern without realizing what is happening. The pattern is in our blindspot. When under the influence of a pattern, we might perceive and evaluate things in a certain way, convinced that that is the way things are, without even considering how we are perceiving and evaluating things.

Just like an old Jukebox that keeps playing the same track, we run the same patterns in the same situations. Someone put a coin in and choose a different track already!

When I’m working with people, I’m always asking myself:

What’s the pattern?

I am looking for patterns of thinking, perceiving, evaluating and responding that the person is caught in but unaware of. If I can uncover the pattern and show them, they can have a look for themselves. Usually, when I find the pattern and make them aware of it, there’s an almost magical change.

One day, while working with a client to resolve her anxiety, I listened while she despairingly told me about all kinds of frightening things she was worried. I stood back, listening patiently and when she had finished, I looked at her and responded emphatically: “Doom and gloom!”

What happened? She burst out laughing! Yes, she didn’t know she was caught in a pattern of envisioning worst-case scenarios. Showing her her pattern interrupted it. She said that wad the first time she’d laughed in months, and it was a breakthrough in our work together.

All change is interrupting patterns.

Many of the patterned ways we have of responding are useful. They get us results. But sometimes, patterns become problems. So what do we do to change? How do we put an end to a harmful pattern of thinking, feeling or behaving? We interrupt it!

You can’t put new data on a CD. Why? There are patterns of information on the CD that give the same result every time. If we don’t like what the CD is playing we need to scratch it until it can’t play anymore. Then we can replace it with a new track.

I used to get really down every time I had a problem. When I had a problem I responded in a certain way, wanting to fix and solve the problem, wishing I didn’t have it, wondering why I had it. Responding this way was all I’d learned and it was so automatic that while I focused on the problem, I never considered how I habitually responded to problems. I didn’t know it was a pattern… and an ineffective one at that. When in the moment, we can’t step back enough to see the pattern of responses over time. Every time you’re in X situation you respond with Y. That’s a pattern! Instead, we’re run by the pattern and blind to it.

Any way of thinking, feeling or behaving you want to change is a pattern. It is something learned at sometime in the past that was practiced and reinforced until it was automatic. It might have been really useful back then, but now that it’s automatic and effortless, it runs even thought it’s causing a problem.

A problem can be simple, in which case it is made up of one or just a few patterns. Complex problems like anxiety, depression or an addiction are usually made up of many patterns. These unconscious and automatic patterns lead to symptoms that we then mistake for the problem. We try to fix the symptoms without being able to see the patterns that are causing them.

To solve problems, we need to identify the hidden automatic patterns and interrupt them. We need to break limiting patterns before we can learn something new. We need to scratch the CD until it cannot play that same track.

All change is interrupting patterns.

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The Divided Mind: Human Nature, Problems and Change

When the ancient Greek philosophers attempted to explain the mind, thinkers like Plato and Aristotle presented theories with a common theme. Thousands of years later, when Freud put pen to paper, this same theme was present. What could cause thinkers to agree on a common point about our nature throughout the ages?

  • What is it that characterizes us as people?
  • What is the nature of human nature?
  • What explains the commonalities between problems people face

What the theories of Plato, Aristotle, Freud and so many others had in common was one key element: conflict.

Plato and Aristotle presented ancient theories of personality that characterized man as driven by conflicting forces. According to their writings, mankind had a dual nature. On the one hand we are driven by reason, they taught. Each of us has a logical, rational side, a side of us that can reason and is reasonable. But underneath is what the ancients called the “appetitive” aspect of man. This other side is driven by desire, craving and emotion. It is our instinctual and animal side. To Plato and Aristotle, our every moment was characterized by the conflict between the sides of this dual nature as our faculties of reason work to curb our emotions and appetites.

Along similar lines, central to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis centuries later was the idea of conflict. Psychoanalysis proposed three parts to the personality. The Id contained our basic and instinctual drives which the superego, the seat of morality and conscience, was to keep in check (with the ego stuck in between). To Freud, each of us, day by day, lived out an eternal conflict.

Are we really so conflicted?

On the surface, these theories ring true. We must each control our emotions and appetites to function in society. We all have emotions, impulses and desires we might like to indulge in, but we make the choice daily to behave as society dictates. We keep our appetites in check and live by society’s rules. But is there more going on?

Our Two Minds

We like to see ourselves as rational, logical and intelligent creatures. We think we make decisions by means of reason and that we are in control of our behaviour. Yet the neo-cortex, the part of our brain that has given us the gift of reason, is a fairly new technological advancement in our evolution.

Through the majority of human existence, it was the reptilian brain that dominated. This other side of human nature evolved over millions of years and helped us survive. Our primal side kept us avoiding danger, defending our territory and has us keep to what was safe. It evolved and adapted so matters of survival were ingrained. And it was this primal and instinctual programming, the seat of our instincts, emotions, impulses and cravings that has dominated human history.

And here we are today, with two brains.

Conscious and Unconscious

In the history of psychology, two terms have come to dominate the lingo for our two brains: conscious mind and unconscious mind.

The conscious mind is our logical rational side. It is the side we use to analyze, reasons and calculate. It let’s us discuss philosophy till the wee hours of the night and bequeathes us the faculty of language.

The unconscious mind is our more primal side. It is the seat of our emotions, impulses, urges and instincts. It stores our memories, knowledge and habits, runs the body and is responsible for our automatic behaviours and reflexes.

Which one is in control?

Although we pride ourselves on reason, most of our behaviour is driven by the unconscious mind. Marketing 101 teaches that people buy with emotion and justify with logic, though nearly everyone will claim that they’re the exception. Throughout the last couple centuries, when groups, corporations and governments have tried to influence the masses, it’s been found again and again that using logic doesn’t work.

And it’s for the same reason that we struggle to change.

When I began working with clients, a common theme quickly emerged in nearly every case. People came to me thinking the problem was one thing, but when they left they their ideas about it has completely changed. They’d gotten beneath the surface, beyond what they thought the problem was and discovered what was really going on. It was such a common experience with people that I drew up a work sheet that said:

What I thought the problem was:
What I now know the problem is:

Today, I know that when someone has been unable to solve a problem, this same thing is going to occur. Somehow they get fooled into thinking they know what the problem is while the truth is hiding. In reality, they are aware of the symptoms, but they can’t see beyond to the true causes.

What is the nature of human nature?

The reptilian brain that evolved over millions of years to ensure that we meet our needs and survive. It is this part of us that drives much of our experience. Now, the logical brain has come along and is helping us quite nicely, but there’s a problem:

The two brains don’t speak the same language.

Our two brains think in different ways, aim for different things and have different functions. They are like people from countries on opposite sides of the world joined as twins but with no common language, interests or aims. What does that equal? Conflict.

Our Two Minds, Problems and Change

Many of our problems arise from a conflict between these two parts of us.

  • While we want to go enjoy the party, something in us is terrified and keeps us locked in a pattern of social anxiety.
  • While we want to shed off those extra pounds, something keeps piling those chocolates in our mouth night after night.
  • While we want to get those items checked off the to do list, something chains us down in front of the TV for one more night of reruns.

The conscious mind wants one thing, the unconscious mind wants another, and you’re stuck in the middle. What’s worse is that neither really knows the other exists and so they can’t even sit down at the negotiation table to talk. They each pull in different directions and you wonder what the heck is going on.

When problems arise, when we feel something we don’t like, when we can’t get ourselves to stop an unwanted behaviour or start a desirable one, we try to understand what is going on. We do our best to interpret the symptoms rationally, the conscious mind tries to interpret what’s occurring, but does a bad job. It gets it wrong! Often we do succeed at coming up with reasons, explanations and justifications, but they miss the mark. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is up to. The conscious mind doesn’t speak “unconscious” and there’s no interpreter around. Conflict and miscommunication.

What then?

A Vicious Cycle…

If we’ve misconceived the problem we’ll misconceive the solution. Based on our misunderstanding of the problem we’ll launch into a solution, but the solutions we try won’t work. Usually, knowing us humans, we’ll keep trying to impose those same ineffective solutions because reasons tells us it should or will work.

Unconscious Communication

How do we decipher the unconscious? 

It might sound surprising but the unconscious mind actually makes a hell of an effort to communicate. In fact, this is just what symptoms are: communication from the unconscious mind.

When we slow down and give the unconscious a voice, we can begin to decipher the symptoms and uncover what they’ve been trying to say. We can begin to listen to our “other mind” and understand what it wants us to know.

What do those symptoms mean?
What do you want me to know?
What’s the purpose of this?
If you could talk, what would you say?

When we begin to listen to our unconscious and understand what’s been lost in translation, we most often find that it’s actually been trying to do something valuable and has something valid it wants us to know.

The greatest healers of history and therapists of today are masterful interpreters of unconscious messages. They can decode the primal language of the mind and translate it into something the patient or client can understand. They find a way to negotiate between our two brains and bring harmony. And often, what therapists who are known for their results do makes little logical and rational sense. They talk to the unconscious.

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Modelling Problems with NLP and Neuro-Semantics

  • How do we solve complex problems?
  • How do we make changes when change has been hard?
  • How do we solve problems that are resistant to change?

The question that has dominated the field of psychology is why? This has led countless devotees of psychotherapy incessantly searching for solutions to their problems in the long distant past. But digging into the past for why rarely leads to true and lasting change. If it did, we’d have a problem-free society. Sadly that’s not the case.

To resolve complex problems, we need a different approach. The advent of NLP was a revolutionary development in the history of psychology. Instead of asking why, the co-founders chose a different question: how?

The developers of NLP took a radically different approach to solving problems. Instead of looking for why and digging into childhood, they wanted to know how a person succeeded in getting a certain result consistently.

They were guided by two fundamental ideas:

1. Every experience has a structure
NLP thinking viewed human experience as constructed out of various building blocks. This meant that behind any result different people were getting (ie. depression, anxiety, phobia), common patterns in thinking and perceiving would be found. The trick was to uncover these building blocks since they were unconscious.

2. Problems are unique human achievements
NLP thinking viewed problems as skills a person had learned at some time and mastered. Now they were like programs running automatically even thought they were no longer effective or relevant.

Based on these ideas, the co-developers of NLP wanted to discover how people were able to systematically get the same result.

  • How does someone do depression?
  • How does someone have to think to panic?
  • How does someone succeed at being phobic?

This was the modelling approach, and it was guided by a fundamental question:

How does this work?

In working with people, Richard Bandler and John Grinder would ask, How do you do this? They would propose a very novel context for exploring a problem saying, “Suppose I’m from a temp agency and I am going to fill in for you for a day. How do I do this?” This made the person the expert at their problem, and it was up to them to teach Bandler and Grinder how to do it.

Using this approach, people gained a radically different kind of awareness into their problem. And it was a kind of awareness that helped them change… and helped Bandler and Grinder intervene almost magically. Since they knew how the problem worked, since they had uncovered the structure, they could apply maximally effective and relevant interventions that worked quickly to produce dramatic results.

Mapping Out Complexity

Most people make a fundamental mistake in trying to solve problems. They try to solve the problem without really knowing what they problem is. Then, they wonder why what they did didn’t work.

To solve a problem, you must first know what the problem really is. This means seeing beyond symptoms and finding the causes, and getting the whole picture. If you get some of it but miss something crucial, your solution might not work.

Modelling with NLP and Neuro-Semantics looks at the mind as a system and helps us unmask the hidden structures that lead to a problem. Through modelling, we can uncover what is really going on, how it works and then we know how to intervene.

Questions for Modelling:

How does this work?
How do you get this result?
How do you do this?
What are the pieces of this?
What hidden beliefs and silent assumptions drive this?
What values and criteria are involved?
What states are involved?
What are the symptoms? What are the causes?
Where did this come from?
What is the purpose of this?
What drives this?
What’s behind this?
What keeps this in place?

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Effective Change: The Core Principles of My Approach

Since 13 years of age, I have been on a quest to “decode the human mind” and find what really works to help people change. Over the past 18 years, I’ve studied virtually every approach to psychology out there, from the most clinical and traditional to the newest and most unconventional. The approach I use today is a synthesis of various methods, schools of thought and systems of psychology and is based on one core principle:

Do what works!

My approach not only developed out of years study and experimentation, but also out of hundreds and hundreds of hours of working with people. When I first studied NLP, I was thrilled when the results it produced were nothing short of miraculous. But when it didn’t work, I wanted to know why, and find something that would. I continued to read, study and experiment, and then devise new methods to fill in the gaps. The result is a systematic, step-by-step and strategic approach to human change that is most likely different from anything you’ve experienced.

Core Principles of My Approach to Change

Every methodology is based on a number of core principles that form the foundation of the approach and interventions. Below are the core principles upon which my approach is based and which guide my behaviour and interventions at all times.

Change is possible
I truly believe that people can change, and I’ve seen people make incredible changes many times. Most often, people struggling with the same problem have failed in their efforts to change. This doesn’t mean change is impossible, it just means that what they’ve done hasn’t worked. With the right approach, the right method, the right tools, change is possible… it’s just a matter of finding out how.

In our society we receive virtually no education on how to solve problems, manage our emotions, change nasty habits, communicate or achieve goals. This work is that kind of education. It is a process of learning that helps people develop those missing but vital skills and acquire tools that let them “run their own brain.”

Change requires flexibility/adaptability
If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something else. Most people are trying to solve problems in a certain way, without realizing that their efforts are actually making the problem worse. If what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s time to do something else. This is precisely what I aim to do in my work with people. I am constantly observing what is happening, what response we are getting from what we are doing, and adjusting until we get the results we want.

Every method has aspects that work for some people some of the time. The key is knowing what will work for whom and knowing what to do when it doesn’t. Thus, my approach is not a one-size fits all, it is an adaptive and flexible method based on individual differences and strengths.

Change is about Adding Choices
Change is often not a matter of fixing what’s broken or getting rid of something. People repeat patterns because it’s all they know, and usually the patterns we’ve been trying to get rid of are actually useful or effective at some times or in some places. This is why it seems like the mind resists our efforts. Change isn’t about taking something away, it’s really about adding new choices. When your mind has options, it will choose the best one. Since most people have a limited mental repertoire of possible responses, my approach is about adding choices and expanding that repertoire.

People Are Not Broken
When faced with a recurring problem, it’s easy to feel like “something’s wrong with me.” We feel like we’re broken and define the problem as some sort of character defect. But people aren’t broken. Usually, the problems we face make perfect sense based on our experiences and programming. The mind repeats patterns it has learned.

People get stuck when they fall into the trap of thinking they need to change “themselves.” Usually your “self” is fine. What needs to be changed, updated or aligned is aspects of our experience: beliefs, values, perceptual filters, inner conflicts and mental strategies. We don’t need to fix you, we have to break old patterns and learn new and more effective ones.

Every Experience Has a Structure
In the past, many approaches to psychology focused on why? My approach is all about how. As every experience has a structure, I want to uncover that structure, find out how it works and where to intervene most effectively. If we know how something works, if we uncover the structure, we can then alter that structure.

Human problems are actually skills that have been mastered through unconscious practice until they have become automatic. Instead of asking, “Why are you this way?” I want to know, “How do you do that?” When we find the structure, sequence and syntax of an experience, we can redesign it into something that will be valuable to you and relevant to your current aims and life.

Problems are Adaptive Responses
The mind is a problem-solving and learning machine. During the course of your life, in times of pain or threat, the mind looks for solutions and adapts responses to help you meet your your needs. Once it adapts a response, it installs a mental program that then becomes automatic so it can serve the same purpose in the future.

Any problematic pattern, state, behaviour developed as the solution to an earlier problem.

These adaptive responses may be effective at achieving some aim in the short term, but later on in life they may become irrelevant or ineffective. Change means adapting to our current environment and developing new and more effective mental programs.

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The Art and Science of NLP Techniques: Six Tips for Technique Troubleshooting

NLP was like nothing else in the field of psychology. It promised rapid and dramatic change, and in many cases, it delivered. The history of NLP is filled with impressive cures and life-changing results before live audiences, on TV and radio too.

Paul McKenna’s miracle results were featured on his nation UK TV show I Can Change Your Life and on TLC’s I Can Make You Thin.

Anthony Robbins’ impressive live interventions now can be found all over the web through the Robbins-Madanes institute, such as a recent video in which he helps a man overcome a life-long problem with stuttering.

What made NLP different was the cutting-edge “psychological technology” it offered; simple and effective techniques that produce impressive and rapid change.

But do they always work?

The answer to this is no. And it’s not because the techniques are ineffective.

Many people have experienced important changes with NLP methods. But others have wondered why what they tried didn’t work. NLP techniques are not magic. There’s an art and science to their application… and when they don’t work, there’s always a reason.

Here are six things to do when techniques don’t work:

1. Ready… Set… hm

There are stages of change, and not everybody who tries to change or wants to change is really ready to change.

People have lots of reasons not to change, and this is why change can be hard. The problem is that these reasons are unconscious. Part of the change process is to get all these hidden reasons out into the open.

What reasons do you have for not changing?

One major saboteur of NLP techniques is fear:

People are afraid of what would happen if they really changed.

Fear of change can take two forms:

The person has a fear of change in general
Some people fear the unknown. They tend to stick to the what they know because its safe, and fear change because they see change as threatening.

In cases like this, before changework and techniques, I explore the person’s relationship with change itself. We look at where it came from and if it’s still valid. I work to expand their relationship with change so they can then make the changes they want comfortably.

The persons fears making a specific change

If the problem is all a person has known, the change they want to make might be huge for them. It’s going to be revolution instead of evolution, and that can be frightening.

Also, a person might associate the change with negative consequences. To them, if they make the change, it will bring along with it unwanted circumstances.

In these cases, what’s missing is clarity. Before engaging in changework, we need to clarify what really will be different if they make the change. This helps one see for themselves if the change will take them where they want and second, it helps them paint a clear picture of what will be different so they can become familiar with it. We must do the upfront work and deal with the fear effectively before change will be possible.

Clarity is key. We have to know the effects of the change we are about to make and clear out any reasons for not changing. A person won’t change until they’re totally ready.

2. Model

The first step to any NLP intervention is to model and map out the problem to uncover the structure. The basis of NLP is modeling to understand how things work, how a person does the problem, how they manage to get a result consistently.

The structure of the problem always tells us how to intervene effectively.

Applying techniques without sufficient information gathering is like shooting in the dark. If you’ve tried to make a change and haven’t succeeded, you missed something. It’s great when someone finds an NLP technique, applies it and gets the result. But other times it takes NLP training or a skilled practitioner to uncover what is really going on.

Neuro-Semantic modeling is the best tool for this. It helps us map out the complexity of a problem’s various levels, unmask how the system works and determine how best to intervene for effective change.

3. Clarify the Goal

NLP thinking states that before change can happen, we need an outcome. Before we set out on a journey, we need a destination.

Often when a person has a problem, they’ve been trying to not have the problem or get rid of the problem. What they don’t know is what they want instead. It’s important to clarify this before changework.

When people have clarified a goal, sometimes it’s the “wrong” goal:

i. Too Much Too Fast
The goal may be too big of a leap, and so it’s just not possible from where the person is without intermediary steps. We’ve got to “shrink the change.” Also, when the goal is too far or too big, the person’s safety mechanism may put on the brakes. It says “too much too fast!” and we have to take heed.

ii. Alarm Bells are Ringing
The goal is something which, if the person succeeded in having it, would cause problems in some area of their life. Something in them knows that and objects.

We must explore these objections and use them as valuable information to help the person achieve what they want in a way that is ecological, meaning will only have a positive impact on the various areas of their life.

iii. It’s a Magical Solution
When children, we decide on important life goals and many of these stick with us into adulthood. Sometimes a person’s goal is not really a realistic outcome, but an ideal or “magical solution.” It’s a romantic notion or a perfectionistic aim. As such, the very outcome is the problem.

In all of these cases, the goal needs to be explored or revised.

4. Explore Objections
Very often, when someone has tried to make a change, it’s because at some level for them, it’s not OK to make the change.

Any problematic pattern, behaviour, state or persistent symptom a person experiences developed for a purpose. Nothing in human psychology occurs without reason. Although the person wants change, a part of them objects, perceiving some negative effect to change.

To uncover these objections, I will tell a client:

“Since you’ve tried to change and fail, there may be some part of you that says its not OK to change. Which part of you is that?”

When we bring this part to the surface and give it a voice, finding out what it wants and what it’s objections are, we’ll usually find some valuable information. From there we can revise the goal so everyone’s on board, or resolve the conflict so change is OK.

5. Explore Identity Issues

Identity is a powerful force in human psychology. Our identity, or our collection of beliefs and hidden assumptions about ourselves, acts like a software program telling us how to think, feel and act.

When people have struggled to make a change, it’s often a clue that identity “issues” are in play.

One’s identity is their narrative about who they are. By dictating the confines of who we are, what we can be, do and have, our identity can prevent or negate changes we’re trying to make.

Often what stops people from making a change is the very thing causing the problem: What they want is outside of their self-definition. Ideas and beliefs decided long ago such as:

I can’t be happy.
Success is not for me.
Fat. That’s just who I am.
I’ll always be alone.

Beliefs like these sabotage our best intentions, but they are unconscious. Few people wake up one morning and go, “Eureka! The problem is my identity! No one comes into to my office and says, “Well, my problem is that I believe happiness is not for me,” they say, “Why can’t I be happy?

These type of beliefs are like parasites hiding in the mind that subvert our efforts. They need to be effectively dealt with for change to be possible.

6. Is a Technique the Answer?

Using the techniques of NLP successfully is an art and a science. When they don’t work, there’s always a reason… and the above troubleshooting tips can help guide you through stormy waters.

But there’s something else that’s important about techniques.

NLP thinking has seduced many into false thinking that the solution to a problem is a technique.

Is this true?

Not a chance!

Not not every problem can be solved with a technique.

The techniques of NLP apply to very specific cases, but there are many times when they aren’t the answer.

Change is a science and an art. Knowing what to do, when and why is key… And so is knowing what to do differently when what you hasn’t worked.

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The Art and Science of NLP Techniques: The Method Behind the Magic

Everybody loves techniques!

The very idea that we can use simple techniques to make changes in ourselves and others is enticing. We’re attracted to the romantic notion that change can happen quickly, as if magically, by applying a simple technique that’s almost like a magical spell. Presto changeo!

Does NLP Really Offer Such Magic?

NLP became famous (to those who learned about it) because of the techniques it offered that produced rapid and dramatic changes in people. Once, when about to demonstrate NLP techniques at Marshall University, Richard Bandler was advised that because of an error, the only available tape was 30 minutes long. Richard’s response was “What are we going to do with the extra space?”

Anthony Robbins and Paul McKenna both made their careers by performing NLP interventions and creating rapid change in front of live audiences. In minutes, they wiped out fears and phobias live, creating a sensation.

What does this mean? It means the NLP techniques work!

Or does it?

While Bandler, Robbins and McKenna have been able to create dramatic changes in people, other people have applied NLP techniques with mixed results. Some people have miracle stories about their experience with certain NLP techniques… whereas others have piled up experiences of “Well, I tried it, but it didn’t work.”

When and Why Do NLP Techniques Work?

Why would NLP techniques work for some people and not others?
Why would NLP techniques work for some problems and not others?
When they do work, why is it?
When they don’t work, why is it?

Not long ago, I had a client come to me for help with anxiety and fear he’d been unable to shake since a distressing event. His father brought him in, and as they both stepped into my office, his father picked up my business card, sat down and said, “So does this stuff work?”

I looked at him and said bluntly, “Nope!”

You can probably imagine the look on his face. What I then said was this:

“This stuff doesn’t work, people work. If we follow the principles of how people work then we get results. If we don’t, what we do won’t.”

NLP techniques can and do “work.” What I mean by that is that people can make changes on their own or with a coach or therapist through the application of NLP processes. But in reality, when change occurs, it’s not because the technique “worked.”

What are NLP Techniques?

All NLP techniques were developed in the same way: by studying the subjective experience of someone who was getting a certain result.

The notorious phobia cure was created by studying the mental process that allowed phobics to overcome their phobia (on their own).

Timeline Therapy was created by studying how people were able to consistently feel good, despite “bad” experiences.

The methods created by Steve and Connirae Andreas for resolving grief were developed by studying people who had overcome serious grief and been able to move on.

The techniques, or patterns as they are also called, are explicit models of what some people already do naturally with their mind. They are specific ways of thinking that some people use to get a certain result, which others who don’t get the same result don’t use. The purpose of NLP patterns is to help people learn new ways of “thinking” and using their mind that come naturally to others but which they have not learned.

What is the purpose of a technique?

NLP techniques are processes for learning.

Nlp techniques do not aim to change, fix or solve anything. They aim to help a person learn more effective ways of thinking and “running their brain.” The underlying assumption is that if other people use their mind in a certain way, others can too, which is true in most cases, at least when it comes to solving psychological problems.

For a technique to produce a desired change in experience, it must be applied as a learning process. What NLP techniques do is add mental skills and abilities to a person’s repertoire that were not available to them previously.

NLP techniques do not take anything away. Their purpose is not to fix, change or get rid of a problem. When used in this way, they rarely work.

What makes Bandler, Robbins and McKenna so skilled is not the techniques, it’s how they apply them.

The greats of NLP use techniques, but don’t rely on them. They know that there are other aspects of a person’s experience that are more important than the technique, and aspects of a person’s experience that can stop the technique from working (which means stop the person from learning something new).

Whether a technique works depends:

  • How it is used
  • For what purpose
  • In what way

NLP techniques replicate other people’s successful experiences. So what’s the difference between two people who have different subjective experiences? What allows one to be cured while another maintains the problem?

What NLP techniques made explicit between people who have the same problems or get the same results is the structure of subjective experience. The founders of NLP uncovered and revealed patterns in the building blocks of human experience.

They showed that human experiences are made up of:

  • Hidden ideas and assumptions
  • Patterns of focus and attention
  • Coding: the way we think about what we think about

When NLP techniques successfully lead to desired changes, they’ve succeeded in altering these levels of experience. If a person has a problem, applies an appropriate NLP pattern, and changes, what has changed are:

  • Their ideas and assumptions about the problem or problem area (beliefs)
  • Their pattern of focus (what they are directing their attention to)
  • The way the experience is coded (how they think about what they were thinking about)

If, after the technique, the change has not happened, it’s because they are continuing to use or have reverted back to the old assumptions, focus or coding.

Techniques work when or because they get you to do something differently with your mind.

Techniques don’t do anything to you, they help you learn something new and add new ways of thinking about things to your automatic and unconscious repertoire. NLP techniques help you acquire new mentaal skills.

Will it Work?

When applying NLP techniques, many people wonder, “Will it work?” If you’re asking this question, something is missing. The question is not, Will it work?, the question is How will it work?

Unmasking the Structure of Experience

Richard Bandler teaches that changework is 90% information gathering and 10% intervention. His ability comes from all the patient and upfront work he does with a client to thoroughly understand their problem. Using the NLP approach, before applying any intervention, it’s vital to do that upfront work and know how a problem works. Before trying to change anything, you’ve got to find the structure. When you uncover how it works and you understand how the person manages to produce this result consistently, you’ll know what technique to apply. Anything else is the shot in the dark technique.

How do I know what to do with a client so they can experience the changes they want quickly? I spent plenty of time patiently exploring the elements of a person’s experience, and once I’ve found them, I look for what else might be at play. Only then when I have the whole picture do I begin work for change. If things don’t go smoothly or our intervention doesn’t work, I know I have missed something.

How Do You Do That?

One of the benefits of the NLP approach is that it allows a person to understand how they managed to generate a problem. It’s a very special kind of awareness. Before using a technique, I want a client to really get how their problem worked, what was generating it and what kept it in place. I want them to have the “Aha!” that prepares them to say, “Oh, why on earth was I doing that?” Once we’ve unmasked the unconscious structure and they’ve taken a good look at it I am ready to give them some new options.

Before applying a technique, I tell my client what we are going to do, why, and how it will help. Before I do anything I want to know that they see how it applies. If you’ve ever seen Robbins and McKenna work with a client, they do a lot of preparation with the person so the person knows what the problem really is, what they are about to do (the technique), and why/how it is going to help. Many novices skip these important steps.

When applying techniques as a coach or therapist, the magic comes from knowing what works, when and how. And if you know why, that’s a great plus too!

When techniques don’t work, there’s always a reason. The next step is to find and why and discover what will work.

Posted in Change, Featured, NLP | Leave a comment

The 10 Most Common Mistakes People Make When Setting and Achieving Goals

As humans we are driven by desire; the more we have, the more we want. And why not? In today’s society, in which education is available to anyone, where economic opportunity is everywhere, and the tools and resources are available to succeed more than ever in history… why not achieve what we want, enjoy health, wealth, and succeed?

Everyone has goals, but most people struggle to achieve theirs. With an abundance of technology, resources, knowledge and tool, with so many courses and coaches and books, how come most people fail to achieve their goals?

There are a number of fundamental errors people make in setting goals that keep them struggling and repeating the same mistakes. Below is each mistake and what to do about it.

1. Lack of Clarity

Most people who try to set goals never really get clear about what they want. Usually they know what they don’t want, and what they don’t want is vividly clear in their mind. Why? Because that’s what they’re getting! When you’re having a certain experience, it’s not easy to imagine having the opposite experience. When you’re broke it tough to imagine money rolling in. When you’re overweight and frustrated it’s hard to imagine being thin. When you’re alone it’s tough to imagine the relationship of your dreams. But when we’re taught to set goals, this is just what they tell us what to do. No one seems to notice that it’s not easy to vividly imagine and focus something that’s the direct opposite of your current, immediate and direct experience. People know what they don’t want because it’s staring them in the face and doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere too soon.

But to get somewhere else, we must be able to clarify what it is we do want. We need to answer questions such as the following:

What do we want to be different?
How do we want to be different?
What do we want to be doing differently?
How do we want to feel different?
How do we want to be thinking differently?

If I tell you I want to stop smoking, quit overeating or end my drinking days, I haven’t told you anything about what I do want, and good luck trying to get me to stop any of the above. What do you want instead? You might say you want to eat healthy, exercise more or go straight home after work (instead of to the bar), but none of those are specific. If I tell you to eat healthy, you are lost in ambiguity and will have to try to figure out just what that means. But if I tell you to buy 1% milk when you’re in the dairy aisle at the grocery store, you’ll know just what to do. This is the kind of clarity you need.

2. Formulating Goals as External Results

If people do get clear on what they want, usually they set goals for what they’d like to achieve or have. Goals like this may be motivating, but they are outlined in terms of an external result. This means your goal is to achieve something you cannot control.

If your goal is something you cannot control, failures and setbacks are inevitable and extremely discouraging. When things don’t go well, you try harder to control things out there, yet it rarely works like this.

An effective goal is one that is self-maintained, meaning that it is something entirely in your control. The most effective way I have found to set any goal is to state it and think of it in terms of behaviour. If I want to make a change in a certain situation, I outline what I want to be doing differently, how I want to be in that situation, and perhaps also how I’d like to be feeling and thinking. When you do it this way, it means that if you’re not achieving it, you have to change something directly with you and in your behaviour. It’s not some mystery out there – instead it’s right here.

For example, if you want a better relationship with your spouse, clarify these questions:

How do you want to be different?
What do you want to be doing differently to get the responses you want?
How do you want to act so the interaction is the way you want it?

If you want to double your income in the next six months, clarify:

How do you want to be different?
What do you need to do differently?
What actions do you need to take?

This clear behavioural goal then becomes your outcome and aim. It gives you something you can aim for that is completely within your control, and this makes the feedback valuable to you as you change your behaviour.

An effective goal is a goal that is outlined as being in your control. Instead of clarifying what you want to get or have, outline what you want to be doing differently (your behaviour).

3. Chunking Too Big

Most goal setting tells you to think of where you want to be and think big, but sometimes that ‘where’ is simply too far and too different from the status quo to be a useful goal. If your goal is too big and too far, first it might seem impossible, and second it might be hard to achieve from where you are. For example, if you’re struggling with your self-worth and your goal is to be “totally confident,” you’re probably going to find it tough to make progress. If you have a big goal you’re committed to, you’ll need to “chunk it” with manageable “subgoals.”

I remember working with a legal consultant who wanted to overcome “unfinished business” (as I call it) from her past. In one session I remember asking her what outcome we could agree on to help her move forward. She thought for a moment and said “unleashing my potential.” I replied by asking, “And when you think of that, what would it be like to have that outcome? How does it settle?” Settle was the right word because she said that although it was what she wanted, it felt unsettling. I suggested that based on what we had uncovered and the work we had done that perhaps it wasn’t time to unleash potential. I suggested that she set a more useful and proposed that a useful outcome at this point would be to heal the division inside and resolve the “unfinished business.” By doing that, we could set a firm foundation that would prepare you to unleash your potential, I said. She thought about it and said it was true. She later said she left that session with a greater sense of peace inside.

To set and achieve goals effectively, we must size them correctly.

4. “Scepticizing”

It’s exciting to set an outcome. You get enthused, hopeful and optimistic, and then you get cracking! But it’s also easy to sink into disappointment at the first signs of trouble. Many people set goals and when anything less than what they wanted occurs, they give up. In the face of setbacks, obstacles and failures they fall into a pit of disillusionment. After a while they get their gusto back and repeat the process… a life-long goal-setting crazy 8.

This is a sure fire way to fail. In NLP terminology this is a goal-setting style known as perfectionist-skeptic, describing the person who bounces between these extremes. But people who tend to succeeded at their goals don’t do it this way.

People who tend to succeed set outcomes, expect failures and setbacks and use the information gained to refine and innovate their approach. The NLP word for this is optimization since they keep optimizing their modus operandi based on the results they get or don’t get. When Edison was asked how he felt about failing so many times to invent the lightbulb, he said he hadn’t failed, he’d only found 1000 ways to not invent the lightbulb. He was optimizing, and in the end, he did invent the lightbulb.

What does this mean? It means that failure is actually the way to success. Working towards goals is a learning process and the learning doesn’t stop until you’ve got your goal (and maybe not even then).

If you want to get your goals, you’ve got to welcome obstacles, setbacks and “failures” as part of a learning process. The feedback you get on the way tells you what doesn’t work so you can constantly optimize until you’ve got your outcome.

5. Making it a Necessity

How do you feel once you’ve set an outcome? Often, without knowing it, people feel that if they set a goal, it means they have to achieve it, and nothing but it… and if they don’t, it means they’re a failure.

When we set a goal we are essentially choosing one possibility we want, and rejecting ALL the other possibilities that aren’t what we want. We are choosing one thing and saying no to an infinity of others. If we make that one thing a necessity and anything else unacceptable, we’re going to run into problems.

There’s a name for this; it’s called attachment. When we get attached to an outcome, when one thing has to happen and nothing else can happen, we become rigid and inflexible. We are unable to adjust our approach and adapt to situations. What’s more is we become afraid; afraid of not achieving our goal and getting what we must get. From that state of fear and need, it becomes hard to achieve.

An outcome doesn’t have to be a necessity. Instead, it should be a possibility. You might achieve it, and that would be great, and you might not, and that will be OK too, at least in the short term. On the path to a goal, your goal may change, you may change, you may decide you don’t want it at all or that you want something else entirely. A goal should be like a direction; its a possibility and not a necessity.

If your goal has become a necessity, you’ll probably find there’s fear hiding behind the feeling of need. Working through this fear will be the next step you’ll need to take to achieve your goal.

6. Making it Urgent

Many times, after helping someone set an outcome, I ask them, “When do you want this?” The answer that often comes without a thought? “Now.”

When setting goals, people often mentally place that goal in the present. They literaly have it right in front of them, close up so they can’t really see anything else. In their minds, it’s not actually part of a possible future, but rather, it’s something that should have already happened. This leaves a feeling of urgency and doesn’t make anyone feel very able to do what it takes to work toward a goal. When we feel we should have this now, we feel guilty, not motivated. At the extreme this becomes a state of “I have to have this now,” and that is a superb way to remain completely stuck. Urgency doesn’t help you get very far, and pressuring yourself to achieve doesn’t lead to great results.

To achieve a goal, we need time and space. Our mind needs the space to reorganize our behaviour and we need time to adjust, take necessary actions and go through each of the steps. When? is one of the most important questions we can ask when setting an outcome. When we mentally place a goal in the future, at a realistic time and place, we give ourselves space to think and the distance to see clearly what we need to do to achieve it. It might be 30 days, 90 days, 1 year or longer – it depends on the person and the goal.

Sometimes, instead of really determining when you want it, I’ll suggest to a client that they consider where they’d have to place it in space to really feel resourceful to achieve it. I like to place things at 90 days because it leaves me feeling relaxed about it all – if it’s an aim for 90 days from now, I have plenty of time. When I have all that time, what usually happens is that I get there much much quicker.

7. Expecting Smooth Sailing

When you set an outcome you’ve just committed to something, something you want and are willing to work toward, and something that’s better than what you’ve got now. Obviously you want to succeed and you don’t want to fail. But the reality is that no one’ succeeds by avoiding failure. When you clarify what you want, it leaves countless other possibilities that are not what you want, as mentioned above! Think there won’t be obstacles and setbacks and you’ll be in for a surprise (and a disappointment).

If you’re trying to achieve something you’ve never achieved before, you can be sure that on the way to your outcome there are going to be difficulties, setbacks, obstacles,
mistakes and failures. If you haven’t achieved it before, it means you are probably learning something brand new. You’ll have to learn how to do it successfully.

What’s more is that the bigger your goal, the bigger the potential for failure. The bigger something is and the further it is from where you are now, the greater the potential to experience the unknown, surprises, setbacks and all kind of other things that are not your goal.

When you decide what you want, you can expect lots of what you don’t want too. The key is to be able to welcome anything that happens and respond in a way that keeps you moving toward what you want.

8. Over-focusing on the Goal

Once your goal is set, you’ll need to determine the steps required to get there. And once you’ve done that, it’s on the steps you’ll need to focus, not necessarily on the goal itself.

Focusing on the goal can leave you pressured and overwhelmed, and unaware of the gap between where you are and where you want to be. It’s easy to start to get lost in a goal, overfocusing on what you want and unable to see what is actually happening right in front of you. People start to live in the someday thinking and thinking about the future and oblivious to what’s going on right now. But if you do that, you can adequately respond to what is going on right now to move you toward your goal.

Sometimes, a goal can become so big in your mind that it seems bigger than you, overwhelming and impossible. If you think about a goal this way, you’ll be lost and stuck.

To achieve goals, we need to focus on the steps, and each smallest step in succession. When things aren’t going how you want, you need to be able to focus on that and respond to it. By doing this, you engage in the process, enjoy the process and can more easily respond to the feedback you get as part of that process.

What about the goal? You’ll want to maintain the goal as a destination in the back of your mind, but stay grounded in the now and attending to the immediate steps.

9. Failing to Look Back

If you’re committed to your goals, it’s natural to keep your eye on the target. You progress and then you look at where you want to be next. As you climb the mountain you keep looking to the top.

But this gets both tiring and discouraging. Few people take the time to stop and look back at where they came from and the progress they’ve made. If you keep looking to the top of the mountain, you’ll always feel like you’re falling short. You’ll get discouraged and maybe even want to give up. But stopping every once in a while and looking at how far you’ve come is like refueling. It shows you that your efforts have been worth it and that if you keep it up, you’ll keep on progressing. It gives you that gusto to keep going, and with a sense of appreciation for that progress and achievement.

10. Doing without Thinking

The business world espouses the virtues of being proactive. “Take action!” and “Go for it!” are mottos for achievement. We love the doers, movers and shakers, and value people who get things done. But far too often, people jump into action without sufficient planning and strategizing.

It’s very easy to take action and not succeed. Just because you have a goal, doesn’t mean your action will pay off. A goal without an effective strategy for achievement will probably lead to more discouragement than success. It’s possible to be too proactive and if you are too proactive, you’ll act without thinking, try to bulldoze towards your goals and wonder why it didn’t work out. It’s the Tasmanian devil approach. At the other end of the spectrum is the reflective type, who tends to think, wait, analyze and consider. This person can become the ultimate procrastinator or suffer from analysis paralysis. This is no better for achievement, but might be effective for a writer, academic or other profession where lots of thinking is required.

For most areas, a balance of the two types of thinking is needed to get things done. We need to clarify what we want, design intelligent steps to get there and then take action. Once we’re clear on out outcome, we need to think, plan and strategize. It’s time to act once we have an effective plan that covers all the bases and considers possible obstacles on the way. This way, we ensure our actions will be as effective as possible.

There are 4 things we must know to achieve our goals:

1. Where we are now? (the present state)
2. Where we want to be? (the desired state)
3. What’s in the way?
4. What are the steps we must take?

The NLP Well-Formed Outcome was designed to help people clarify in depth where they are, where they want to be, what’s in the way and then to outline the steps to get there. It aims to help us get so clear that we can be sure our action will pay off.

Posted in Change, Featured, Goals, NLP, Performance | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Magical Solution

Everyone has goals of some kind, and we’re told from all directions to set goals, make them clear (and SMART) and take action. Positive thinkers tell us “anything is possible” and to think big! Movies and books like The Secret urge us to dream, visualize and imagine because that thing we’ve been yearning for is possible!

But what if the cult of goals and wishes fulfilled is actually destructive?

What could be wrong with setting goals and dreaming big?

The problem is, human nature gets in the way.

It’s a fact that many seemingly impossible things are indeed possible. Countless people throughout history have achieved things they were told just couldn’t be done. They defied the odds and showed others the truth. Kennedy was told we couldn’t land on the moon (at least not anytime in the 60s). Roger Bannister was told no one could run a mile in under 4 minutes. At the beginning of his career, Elvis was told “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”

Often what we think can’t be done, simply hasn’t yet been done.

But I’m talking about an entirely different type of goal.

Richard (names have been changed for purposes of anonymity) came to me with a lifelong history of problems. He’d tried everything; therapy, hypnosis, books, seminars and on and on. He said he’d grown and changed a lot, but some things he just couldn’t get beyond. Most importantly, he felt unable to be happy. He was motivated, committed, and willing to do what it takes… So what could be wrong?

At one point in our work together, we began to explore what Richard really wanted out of life deep down. What came to the surface was that most of all, he wanted to feel that he was “OK.” I asked him what he meant by this, and soon it was clear. What Richard was trying to attain was being “perfect.” Richard was surprised as this “goal” came out in our session. He hadn’t really been aware of it before quite like this. He knew he was a bit of a perfectionist, but he hadn’t seen that the hidden quest driving his life was the quest to “be perfect.”

The goal was the problem!

Can our goals really keep us stuck and running in circles?

It’s surprising and paradoxical, but one of the things that holds people back most is the goal they have.

When people have been trying everything but are still stuck, when no matter what they do things don’t get better, when they are driven and determined yet spinning their wheels, it’s often because they’re “aiming” for the “magical solution.”

What keeps a problem gambler going to the casino day after day? He’s convinced that “next time” will be the big win, and that that big win will make all his troubles go away. He vividly imagines how great life would be with the money, yearns for it to happen and has faith that it really will. Each time he loses, he tells himself that next time will be that big win. Unaware, he’s being driven by a magical solution.

Someone who is co-dependent doesn’t understand why she’s incessantly unfulfilled. But she knows that if she were finally to meet the “right” man, everything would finally be OK. She could finally be happy and her problems would be solved. She’s being lured by the magical solution.

Here’s another example: Many people who seek therapy think that their emotions are the problem. They think that if only they could be happy and confident, things would be OK. They want to be rid of negative emotions and attain a sort of “emotional perfection.” Being perfectly good and totally free of the “bad” is their magical solution.

With the best of intentions, with hope and faith and a positive attitude, we believe in the possibility of attaining things that will make our lives better. We wish for things we believe will solve our problems and make us happy. Who wouldn’t? But often, we are yearning for and working toward a fantasy.

Recently a client of mine began to explore her views of love. She discovered she’d literally been looking for prince charming. She felt that a relationship would arrive and make life wonderful at last. This view had been there, behind the scenes in her mind driving her behaviour, but she’d never really examined it, put it under the microscope and seen it for what it was: a fantasy.

As she explored her “map” of love she said it sounded a lot like a Disney movie. She made the joke that she wanted to write to Disney to complain to them for imbuing us with such romantic notions about how life could be and should be. And in discovering that her long-held beliefs about love were indeed “romantic notions” that didn’t match reality, she was free to begin to formulate a new and more empowering outcome. With her adult mind, she could then form a realistic outcome for having a relationship; one that would leave her empowered with a realistic and attainable goal that would positively impact her life.

Without knowing it, many of us are driven by fantasy. We have unrealistic and unattainable goals that we believe in, have faith in and would do almost anything to attain. Our lives center around living that dream, and while we go to work, pay the bills, shovel the driveway and watch episode after episode of Glee, we secretly wish we were living our own personal Disney movie.

But Disney is not to blame… human nature is.

There’s a reason these fantasies stick, and it’s this: they’re seductive!

The allure of attaining the fantasy is irresistible! Many people endure years of pain, holding onto their magical solution, thinking that if there’s even only a small chance it could be possible, it’s worth it. They imagine the perfect life they’d be living if their magical solution came to pass, and the promise of pleasure is enticing. That imagined pleasure outweighs the actual pain, mostly because they don’t know the goal is fueling the pain. The magical solution is like an addiction. The promise of potential pleasure is so great, we don’t want to let go. We “know” that if we could have it, it would be bliss, but we can’t see that seeking it leads to misery. The more we don’t have it, the more it hurts and the more we want it and need it. The more we try to get it, the more we suffer. It’s a feedback loop; a self-reinforcing cycle we don’t even know we’re in. So we gamble our lives away hoping for that big win, and losing big.

The magical solution is:

1. An unrealistic goal or outcome
2. Largely unconscious, automatic and taken for granted
3. Believed to be the solution to current problems
4. Deceptively enticing and seductive as a potential solution
5. Extremely difficult or nearly impossible to attain
6. An aim which, when pursued, has a negative impact on one’s life

Why is it called the magical solution? Because like the wave of a wand, it promises to make all our troubles go away. If only we could have that one things, everything would be different. But this is a false hope. We believe that that thing will give us something it really won’t. Even if we get our three wishes from the genie, things will never be as perfect as we’ve imagined.

Is this really human nature?

If we turn back time, we’ll see the to a child, even the smallest thing can seem enormously painful. Forgetting your doll sally on the bus can seem unbearable, and we might even want to call such events “traumatic.” Some children will experience trauma with a capital T; abuse, neglect, or the loss of a parent for example. In all these cases, the child must find a way to deal with the pain.

How do we cope with pain? One way is through the readily available resource of childhood: fantasy. When we’re young, the bounds of reality are unknown. It’s easy to suddenly become a fairy who can grant wishes, a knight who can slay the dragon, or an Indian chasing cowboys. We had invisible friends, dolls in perfect doll worlds and mighty action figures about to conquer evil. And when in pain, children often turn to their imagination for help.

Life for a child is a time of innocence when all of our needs are taken care of. We live in a romantic world until a certain age, when reality starts to “set in.” When holes start to appear in the romantic world where all is perfect, we feel pain. We are surprised and shocked that suddenly things are not so perfect anymore. It’s the proverbial loss of innocence, it’s painful, and we must find ways to deal with that pain. When hurt, a child often naturally withdraws from the outside world and into the inner world of imagination. We begin to imagine the opposite of what is happening out there and conjure up would be solutions to reality. “If only I could have X,” the child thinks… “then things would be OK.” If a child feels “not good enough,” she will imagine being perfect. If a child feels unwanted, he will begin to imagine having “perfect love.” If a child feels powerless, he will fantasize about unlimited power.

There’s a pattern here in the thinking of a child. A child is only capable of simple black and white thinking. It’s good or bad, either or, this or that. So, the answer to what is happening out there must be the total opposite. Psychoanalysis call this “reaction formation,” trying to replace one experience with its total opposite, and this is just where magical solutions come from. At that time and in that context, this is the best thinking a child could do. Our magical solutions formed in a time of pain as an adaptation, as the opposite to a current experience and as the solution to that experience. Then, they set the direction for our life.

Our magical solutions were decided long ago in childhood when we said “THAT’s the solution!” They were unquestioningly accepted, then went unexamined and unchallenged. The mind of a child formed a powerful belief system about love or money, acceptance or power, or any number of other things that might “hold the key.”

Often, the thing we want most in life is the complete opposite of what we felt in childhood. If we felt unloved, we become obsessed with finding the perfect relationship. If we felt worthless, we become fixated on attaining limitless admiration. If we felt powerless, we become addicted to anything that gives us a sense of power. These inner drives shape our behaviour and the course of our lives, but often are hidden from our awareness.

But these fantasies do not remain in childhood. They last far beyond, shaping our lives as adults. And there’s something else that locks people into this pattern:

We don’t know our goals are fantasies!

To us, they are not fantasies, they are solutions. They are what we need and must have. We are blinded to the fact that they are unrealistic, unattainable, unlikely and improbable. Our minds trick us into believing they are possible, thinking it could happen, should happen, and might happen. Our blind faith in the fantasy discounts our actual experience, and deletes the actual facts and evidence. We yearn for the pleasure we feel it could give us, and can’t see the pain the quest for it is causing.

Letting these types of aims and intentions drive us rarely leads to a fulfilling life.

What if we were really to examine the impact of our goals on our lives? We might uncover some “disempowering intentions” that have lured us into their grasp. The same must happen with magical solutions. We must ask ourselves, “When you hold onto that goal/fantasy, what has actually been happening? How has it impacted your life?” Asking these questions lets us quality control our aims and intentions to ensure they serve us and make our lives better. A magical solution is like an addiction; we will continue to use until we lose faith in what we believe the substance will do for us.

To free ourselves from the cycle we need to see that what we’ve been pursuing is a fantasy. We need to understand where it came from, for what purpose it formed, and how it made sense at the time. When doing this work, many see that it helped them back then, but its not helping them now. Change means giving up the magical solution. When they see clearly that this vestige of the past is hurting them now and negatively impacting their life, they are ready for the next step: replacing the fantasy with an aim and outcome that is workable, realistic, and that will really serve them today, and make their life better.

What’s the difference between a goal and a magical solution? Simple; one improves your life, the other does not. We know something is a magical solution when it sounds too good to be true, and quite frankly, when pursuing it has been making your life worse. In NLP terms, it’s a disempowering intention. When we have a real goal, it leaves us feeling empowered, like we’re on track, and as we pursue it, life get’s better. A magical solution goes against reality and makes life worse. A goal matches reality and uses the laws of reality to make life better.

The co-developers of NLP studied people who were skilled at setting and achieving goals and out of this work, developed the Well-Formed Outcome. Using the Well-Formed Outcome criteria helps us set goals that will get us on track and increase the changes of our success. We can use them to weed out the fantasies and create an aim that will really get us somewhere.

Posted in Anxiety, Belief Systems, Change, Depression, Featured, Goals, Personality | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Trauma and The Evolution of Anxiety

Most people struggling with symptoms of anxiety aren’t really sure where it came from. They’re not sure why it’s happening because it makes no sense. Yet, in every case of anxiety that I have worked with, the symptoms originated in an event of extreme fear, either recent or long long ago, and then evolved into a recurring and debilitating pattern of chronic fear and helplessness. What began as a normal response to extenuating circumstances grew into a pervasive pattern completely separated from its initial context.

Anxiety is usually seen as an inappropriate response, an overreaction to stimuli that really shouldn’t be threatening. But the more I worked with people, the more a different picture began to emerge. Anxiety wasn’t so much a mistake of the mind as a previously adaptive response that had evolved into a debilitating reaction. What began as a survival response had developed into painful and detrimental emotional and psycho-emotional pattern.

Trauma, Immobility and the Origins of Anxiety

Could the symptoms of anxiety have their source in our innate biological response to danger and threat?

When faced with danger, we are wired with three instinctive responses: fight, flight or freeze. Sometimes the best response to danger is to “get the heck outta there.” Other times we need to stand up and defend ourselves. And there are times when in danger, there may be nothing we can do. The only option is to freeze and wait.

The freeze response appears in two forms. The first is exemplified by the well-known deer in the headlights response. A person freezes, not quite knowing what to do. Should they run, fight or hold still? Freezing often occurs before moving to fight or flight.

The other type if freeze response is entirely different. When we are threatened, in danger, or are being hurt, but are helpless to do anything about it, the body reacts with a type of last resort: immobility. If an animal is being attacked and has no hope of winning the fight, its only hope may be to play dead. Its entire body goes limp in the hope that the predator will cease its onslaught. When the predator lets up its guard, the animal could awaken from its trance and escape in a moment of chance. If not, the immobility response leaves the animal in an altered state which will lessen its pain should the predator proceed to have it for dinner.

When in danger yet helpless, we too turn to our own last resort. We fall into a type of stupor as the body goes limp. The name for it is tonic immobility, and it’s a physiological response to life-threatening situations adapted over the course of millions of years. The rational brain shuts down, leaving us in a state of paralysis. We are frozen in immobility while we wait for the threat to pass.

An event is traumatic when it completely overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causing a sense helplessness in which one fears serious harm, death or loss of sanity.
Such extreme circumstances evoke extreme reactions, and since our cognitive and emotional capacities are overwhelmed, we respond with our biological last resort: immobility.

A number of different types of events can be traumatic. Some may seem self-evident, such as rape. Others, such as a surgical procedure might surprise some by the traumatic effects they can have. Events typically associated with trauma are those such as:

• Natural disasters (tornados, floods, fires, earthquakes)
• War
• Physical or sexual abuse
• Rape
• Accidents (falls, automobile accidents)
• Serious illness
• Medical and surgical procedures

These types of significant emotional experiences actually alter a person’s neurophysiology. They are a type of powerful learning experience in which danger and threat can become paired with the immobility response. The person has become wired to automatically respond to danger and fear with a state of helplessness.

The immobility response may save a person’s life, but after a traumatic experience, it can become a default response to various stimuli and situations. In essence, when unresolved, it overgeneralizes and comes to be applied to situations in which it is detrimental. What’s more is that when this response occurs inappropriately, it can be quite disturbing.

A neurophysiological response of immobility in situations where action is warranted or in situations that are not threatening can be terrifying.

Anxiety is often defined as fear of fear. The argument goes that in the case of anxiety, a person becomes afraid of their own physiological fear response, and thus, stuck in a negative feedback loop. The more they fear their fear, the more they are afraid.

But in working with individual’s struggling with anxiety, I have found something else.

After a traumatic experience (danger + helplessness) which evoked tonic immobility, a person can begin to re-experience that same state of immobility in other circumstances. When it occurs, they know it is inappropriate and may have negative consequences, and so, unable to stop the immobility response, they become afraid of it. Their body responds to stimuli with immobility while their mind responds to the immobility with fear. They panic, helpless with regard to their own immobility. Because it has occurred they expect that it will occur again. They imagine it occurring in the future, believe it will, and since they know it’s inappropriate and self-defeating, they fear the anticipated and inevitable reaction.

The Anxiety Feedback Loop

1. Immobility response: A traumatic experience and appropriate immobility response
2. Immobility response in new situations: New experiences evoke an inappropriate immobility response
3. Fear of the response: The person becomes afraid of the response as it occurs
4. Shame about the response: The person becomes ashamed of the response after it occurs
5. Future projection: They imagine it occurring in the future in situations where it is inappropriate and fear those situations
6. Avoidance: They feel the need to avoid those situations and the feelings they evoke.

If anxiety is fear of fear, it’s an inappropriate fear, since fear is a fact of human life. But if anxiety instead is fear of the immobility response occurring in situations where it’s not appropriate, it’s a very valid fear. Would you want to respond with sudden paralysis and helplessness when driving on the highway, shopping for groceries or when talking to someone you’re attracted to?

In the above outline, what began as an immobility response evolves into something very different. The immobility evokes fear about and shame of that response. The person ends up in a battle with himself and stuck in a vicious cycle. What was immobility has now become a collage of fear, helplessness and shame, each feeding the other and sending things spiraling out of control.

Breaking the Anxiety Cycle

People have a need to understand and make sense out of their experience. When locked in this cycle, a person is often mystified as to what is going on. Confusion adds to the fear and shame as they try unsuccessfully to interpret the complexity of their experience. To break the cycle, they must first understand what has been occurring and why.

Once we demystify the cycle and elucidate how their own natural responses to the state of immobility have been feeding the pattern, they can learn new responses. With the right techniques, we can retrain the body to respond to danger and threat in more effective ways. People can wake up from the immobility trance. They can learn to replace automatic immobility with ability, and thus, regain their sense of power and spirit.

Posted in Anxiety, Featured, PTSD/Trauma | 1 Comment

Problem Solving with the Hierarchy of the Mind

The mind, and any biological or social system for that matter, is organized into levels. For efforts to change or achieve goals to be effective they must address the various levels of human experience.

When working to create change or improve performance, there are five levels of human experience that consistently enter into play:

First, there is our environment and our external constraints. In our environment, we act through our behaviour. Our behaviour is guided by capabilities, what we are able to do and how we go about things (strategies). Our capabilities are governed by our belief systems and our values, which are governed by our identity, our sense of who we are, and our mission, our sense of purpose.

These levels, known as the Neuro-Logical Levels in NLP, are organized hierarchically as follows:

What is your mission/purpose/vision?
Who are you? How do you define yourself?
Beliefs and Values
What do you believe to be true? What is important to you?
What are you able to do? What skills, abilities and talents do you have? What strategies do you use?
What do you do? What actions do you take? How do you behave?
Where? When? With whom? What is the context, time, place, setting? What external influences are there?

Many people struggle with the same recurring problems. They find themselves repeating the same old patterns of thinking, falling into the same old habits and consistently unable to achieve the goals they set for themselves.

Why is this?

Because no one trained us in effective methods for diagnosing and solving the problems.

Before recommending a treatment, a doctor gives a diagnosis. If the diagnosis is incorrect, the treatment will be as well, and the problem will remain or worsen. This is precisely what we do each day; we try and try to solve problems without knowing what the real problem is. We misdiagnose and so we mistreat.

So how can we correctly identify problems and decide on an appropriate solution?

By looking at human experience in terms of the logical levels, we can determine at what level the problem exists, and differentiate from the levels at which symptoms are occurring. By clarifying what is causing what, we know at what level to intervene.

Most often, we attribute the causes of problems to the lower levels. We play the blame game and blame our genes, our brain chemistry, the economy, the market, our parents, our past, etc.We look to the level of capabilities and say “I can’t do that,” “I’m not smart enough,” or “I don’t have what it takes…” But rarely are the real causes of our problems at these levels.

The higher levels govern and influence the lower levels and so often hold the key to achieving the results we want. If an athlete with a great track record for performance (behaviour) begins thinking he or she is going to fail (belief), what is the effect on performance? The belief will easily diminish his or her ability and results. Beliefs govern capability and behaviour.

It seems self-evident when talking about sports, but rarely do people apply this type of thinking to performance in other areas of their life – but the principle holds for any type of performance.

A few years ago I did some leadership consulting for a company. One of their top managers had managed to transform the corporate culture of the center he was in charge of, reduce errors by 45% and ended up saving the company $300,000 a year. They wanted to know how he did what he did. In my work modelling his psychology, one of the things he said struck me; “I am a lighthouse to greatness.” Out of context it sounds a bit arrogant, but I had to work hard to pry it out of him. He was both modest and humble.

Thinking of himself in this way (identity) unleashed his capabilities, shaped his behaviour and allowed him to positively impact his environment. Higher levels govern lower levels.

Some people think that problem solving is always a matter of behaviour. Do this, don’t do that, take this action, act like that, behave this way. But it doesn’t work. Why? Because there is more to human experience. Give people a proven way to make a million dollars and most won’t. Why not? Because their beliefs, values and identity are simply not aligned with that result. To achieve a result, all the levels needs to be aligned with it.

Many people who find themselves in therapy or with recurring and often unexplainable difficulties have a problem at the identity level. They way they have defined themselves and think of themselves is limiting and even toxic, but the belief system is unconscious. The way we think of ourselves and define who we are trickles down into the other levels, governs them, shapes them and can lead to great results or dismal ones at the other levels of experience. But few people wake up one day and think, “Oh, I know what the problem is! It’s an identity problem!”

In my work with people struggling with depression, anxiety, abuse and other psychological challenges, one common denominator has been a disempowering identity. Their beliefs about themselves are negative, limiting and destructive.

I worked with a woman last year who wanted to double her sales. Our original agreement was to work on her approach and her sales ability, but what we discovered was that the way she thought of herself was holding her back. We did some work at the identity level and not long after our coaching, her sales had increased by 80%. Those changes trickled down!

Posted in Belief Systems, Change, Goals, NLP | Leave a comment